And as if in mocking confirmation of these words there suddenly rang, echoing from afar, a long and merry laugh.
“The Scarlet Pimpernel!” cried Roger. “In rags and barefooted! At him, citizens; he cannot have got far!”
“Hush! Listen!” whispered one of the men, suddenly gripping him by the arm.
And from the distance—though Heaven only knew from what direction—came the sound of horses’ hoofs pawing the soft ground; the next moment they were heard galloping away at breakneck speed.
The men turned to run in every direction, blindly, aimlessly, in the dark, like bloodhounds that have lost the trail.
One man, as he ran, stumbled against a dark mass prone upon the ground. With a curse on his lips, he recovered his balance.
“Hold! What is this?” he cried.
Some of his comrades gathered round him. No one could see anything, but the dark mass appeared to have human shape, and it was bound round and round with cords. And now feeble moans escaped from obviously human lips.
“What is it? Who is it?” asked the men.
“An Englishman,” came in weak accents from the ground.
“I am called Kulmsted.”
“Bah! An aristocrat!”
“No! An enemy of the Scarlet Pimpernel, like yourselves. I would have delivered him into your hands. But you let him escape you. As for me, he would have been wiser if he had killed me.”
They picked him up and undid the cords from round his body, and later on took him with them back into Paris.
But there, in the darkness of the night, in the mud of the road, and beneath the icy rain, knees were shaking that had long ago forgotten how to bend, and hasty prayers were muttered by lips that were far more accustomed to blaspheme.
THE CABARET DE LA LIBERTE
A loud curse accompanied this last throw, and shouts of ribald laughter greeted it.
“No luck, Guidal!”
“Always at the tail end of the cart, eh, citizen?”
“Do not despair yet, good old Guidal! Bad beginnings oft make splendid ends!”
Then once again the dice rattled in the boxes; those who stood around pressed closer round the gamesters; hot, avid faces, covered with sweat and grime, peered eagerly down upon the table.
“Eight and eleven—nineteen!”
“Twelve and zero! By Satan! Curse him! Just my luck!”
“Four and nine—thirteen! Unlucky number!”
“Now then—once more! I’ll back Merri! Ten assignats of the most worthless kind! Who’ll take me that Merri gets the wench in the end?”
This from one of the lookers-on, a tall, cadaverous-looking creature, with sunken eyes and broad, hunched-up shoulders, which were perpetually shaken by a dry, rasping cough that proclaimed the ravages of some mortal disease, left him trembling as with ague and brought beads of perspiration to the roots of his lank hair. A recrudescence of excitement went the round of the spectators. The gamblers sitting round a narrow deal table, on which past libations had left marks of sticky rings, had scarce room to move their elbows.